Posted by: Hannah | 06/26/2011

benign neglect

This week I had my first real full-on interaction with a pair of helicopter parents.

I’ve heard of them of course, and I’ve seen them around, but I’ve never had occasion to talk to them much.

After seeing them in action, man oh man. They must be exhausted.

Thing #1 is in Little League. He’s been wanting to play baseball on a real team since he was in diapers, so it was with profound relief that we discovered our newish neighbourhood is baseball-crazy. We live in an older, more rural area of the province – there are many active fishing communities within a 10 minute drive – and while there are more and more wealthy townies finding our little piece of heaven out here the majority of the families are firmly in the lower middle class. Baseball is inexpensive; equipment needs are few, and one thing we’ve got lots of is baseball diamonds. All in excellent condition, many with lights and bleachers. So it was no trouble to get Thing #1 registered for twice-weekly league play at the diamond only five minutes away.

Each practice and game, parents line the chain link fence at the lower field, sitting on folding chairs or blankets, clutching water bottles and bug repellent. Younger siblings play ‘catch’ behind the parents, throwing softballs aimlessly at one another and usually wearing their impossibly small gloves on the wrong hand.

It’s the kind of environment that usually stresses me out, because I’m not good at striking up conversations with people I don’t know. I’m getting better, though. The fact that all the other parents seem to know Thing #1 helps.

On Wednesday night I met the dad of Thing #1’s teammate. Nice guy. Kid is cute if a bit impish. Has an older brother. We chat. It’s fine. And then another kid on the team jumps the fence and wanders off into the bushes.

Now, this particular kid is a brat. BRAT. He’s too old for the division so I’m not even sure why he’s there, but suffice it to say he is, and he’s a good head taller than everyone else. He’s a bully. He doesn’t pay attention. He’s obnoxious and doesn’t listen and throws infield dirt up in the air and stomps on people’s feet with his cleats and MAKES ME STABBY. But whatever, he’s not *my* kid, and he wanders off the field into the woods at least once every game anyway, so I’ve stopped caring.

Dad of teammate? HORRIFIED.

“Where is he going? Where are his parents? Doesn’t anyone see him wandering off? Should I go get him?” and on and on, until he finally said “I don’t let my two go anywhere that I can’t see them. We only just started letting our oldest boy go to his friend’s house up the road by himself, and he’s eleven!”

Said in the “aren’t I a superior parent” tone of voice.

I thought back to when I was eleven. And babysitting for my parents. Looking after my three younger siblings – one an infant. Riding my bike the mile down the road to my Nanny’s house after school. Roaming the neighbourhood with other kids until sunset. And then I looked at the older son, who is only an inch shorter than me and looking quite capable of defending himself – only allowed to go two houses down the cul-de-sac in broad daylight, and that under protest.

I could tell an answer was expected. I mumbled something about how age doesn’t factor into it, that the maturity and good sense of the kid counted for a lot (which I do believe). I told him how Thing #1 is allowed to ride his bike on the cul-de-sac in front of our house without my supervision, and how Thing #2 can be out front in the driveway on his tricycle at the same time, even though yes, we live near (not right on) a busy road. And then I dropped it.

***

This same family had a birthday party for their younger boy yesterday. At our local community centre. It said right on the invitation that parents could stay or go. So I dropped off Thing #1 and left. I had things to do. Before they would let me leave, they insisted that I write down my phone number in a notebook (even though my boy knows his phone number and address, and has since he was three. Because teaching that information to your kids is one sensible, not-panicky way to keep them safe). They both asked me repeatedly if I wouldn’t like to stay. They seemed shocked that I didn’t.

***

These are very nice people. I like them, in a “you people are not kindred spirits and never will be” kind of way. Their boys are polite and well-mannered, and I have no problem letting my guy hang with them. They threw a heck of a party, with a live reptile show, and emailed me pictures of Thing #1 wrapped in a ten-foot boa constrictor with a smile a mile wide.

But I can’t imagine how tiring it must be, to spend so much time and energy engaging with and supervising the every move of their two energetic boys. I love my kids. I love doing things with them and showing them things. I love answering their endless questions. But I love that my parenting style falls squarely under the heading of “benign neglect”.

Because I would never have the patience to be a helicopter.

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Responses

  1. Heh. I recall one playdate, years ago, that I went to. I assumed that I would have coffee and chat with the mom, and that her daughter would just play with my kids. Not so! Essentially I sat on the couch while she moderated play and engaged with her daughter in the play. Longest playdate of my life. Lovely woman though, I really did like her and wanted to know her better but unfortunately the playdates became these weird orchestrated things. AND because of that her daughter really had no idea how to play with other kids.

  2. That’s my thing. It’s TIRING. And if I’m raising well adjusted women, hovering over them will not help. I’m thinking that Dad would freak the hell out watching Viv run outside in the wooded area behind me with her cap gun.

    And I NEVER stay for parties, and wouldn’t expect parents to. I invite your kid, he’s my problem for a few hours. Go have coffee or sex or whatever our parents did when they gleefully dropped us off.

  3. I have a set of friends that have managed to make their child very anxious by hovering over him all the time. The sad thing is they really WANT to make him less anxious, but the constant reassurance (I think, anyway) just tells him that yes, this IS a big deal.

    They came over and he didn’t want to pat my dog. Instead of saying “ok, fine” and leaving it at that, they spent the next TWENTY minutes trying to convince him to touch the nice dog. It became a battle of the wills which the 4 year old inevitably won.

    I bet if we had just ignored the whole situation he would have been patting my fluffly tail-wagger within ten minutes.


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